Hellraiser

Christopher Fowler is an acclaimed novelist and scriptwriter. His first thriller, the bestselling Roofworld, has now been optioned as a New Line film. His subsequent books include Rune, Darkest Day, Spanky, Psychoville, Calabash and the graphic novel Menz Insana. He is one of the finest exponents of the short story - as collections like Flesh Wounds, The Devil in Me and, most recently, Demonized testify. His crime novel Full Dark House, featuring elderly detectives Bryant and May, won the August Derleth Award for Year's Best Novel, and was followed up by The Water Room. Christopher is also co-founder of Creative Partnership, a company that creates movie posters, trailers and documentaries, and he reviews for the Independent On Sunday, as well as many other publications. He lives in London, where most of his tales are set.

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The first inkling Michael Everett Townsend had that something was wrong was when his wife slapped him hard around the face.

She had never slapped his face before. Michael hadn't been expecting the blow. He was carrying a glass of milk, and it shot out of his hand, spattering them both. The glass was cheap and just bounced on the rug, but he jumped back in shock and stepped on it, cracking the thing into shards, one of which pierced his bare foot. Gasping in pain, he dropped down on the edge of the bed just as the blood began to pour freely from his wounded sole. Instead of the sympathy he expected to receive, however, his wife gave a scream of rage and a mighty shove, and tipped him onto the floor. Then she began looking for a knife.

Michael's wife really loved him.

But then, everyone did. Michael was the most popular man in the entire apartment building. The superintendent gave him preferential treatment because unlike the other tenants he never complained about the heating, which was always too hot or nonexistent. Betty, Michael's next-door neighbour, adored him because he had once scared a drugged- up burglar from the hallway at two in the morning, because he professed an admiration for the people of North Yorkshire where she had grown up, and because he had shown her how to replace the washers in her bathroom taps. Mitzi and Karen, the two blonde Australian flight attendants on the floor below, liked him because he was cute and a gentleman, because he paid them the respect they were denied in the air and because they were attuned to potential romantic material, married or otherwise.

But it wasn't just the apartment building. The staff at work loved Michael and showed it, which was unusual, because in London-based companies very few people are willing to reveal their personal loyalties in any direction. The Asian couple who ran the deli at the corner doted on him, because he always asked after their handicapped son, and managed to pronounce the boy's name correctly. And dozens of other people who's lives crossed Michael's felt a little bit richer for knowing him. He was a popular guy. And if he was honest with himself, he knew it.

Michael had been aware of his popularity since the age of five, winning over creepy aunts and tobacco-stained uncles with an easy smile. An only child in a quiet middle-class family, he had grown up in sun-dappled suburbia, lavished with love. His parents still worshipped him, calling once a week to catch up with his latest exploits. He had been a golden child who remained golden in adulthood.

Golden. That was the perfect word.

Blond haired, blue eyed, broad shouldered, thirty-two, and married to an intelligent, talented, attractive woman. When Michael spoke others listened, nodding sagely as they considered his point. They wanted to call him by a nickname that would imply intimate friendship, Micky or Mike. What they liked about him was hard for them to define; perhaps they enjoyed basking in the reflection of his success. Perhaps he made them feel more confident in their own abilities.

The truth was simpler than that. Michael was at ease in his world. Even his most casual conversations made sound sense. In a life that was filled with uncertainties he was a totally reliable factor, a bedrock, a touchstone. And others sensed it. Everyone knew that they were in the presence of a winner.

Until the night of the accident, that is.

 

It really wasn't Michael's fault. The rain was beating so heavily that the windscreen wipers couldn't clear it on the fastest setting. It was a little after 11pm, and he was driving slowly and carefully back from the office, where he had been working late. He was thinking about Marla curled up in bed, waiting to hear his key in the lock. He had just coasted the Mercedes through the water chute that a few hours ago had been the road leading to Muswell Hill Broadway when a bicycle materialised from the downpour. On it sat a heavy-set figure in a yellow slicker - but not for long. The figure slammed into the bonnet of the car, then rolled off heavily and fell to the ground. Michael stamped his boot down on the brake, caused the car to fishtail up against the kerb in a spray of dirty water.

He jumped out of the vehicle and ran to the prostrate figure.

'Jeesus focking Christ!' The cyclist was in his late forties, possibly South American, very pissed off. Michael tried to help him to his feet but was shoved away. 'Don' touch me, man, just don't focking touch me!' He turned back to his bicycle and pulled it upright. The thing had no lights, no brakes, nothing. And the guy sounded drunk or stoned. Michael was feeling less guilty by the second.

'Look, I'm really sorry I hit you, but you just appeared in front of me. It's lucky I wasn't going any faster.'

'Yeah, right - lucky me.' The handlebars of the bike were twisted, and it didn't look like they could be straightened out without a spanner. He hurled the bicycle onto the verge in disgust.

'I can give you a ride,' offered Michael. The driver door of the Mercedes was still open. The leather upholstery was getting wet.

'I don' want no focking ride in a rich man's car, asshole!' shouted the cyclist, pushing him away.

'Look, I'm trying to be civilised about this,' said Michael, who was always civilised. 'You had no lights on, you came straight through a stop sign without even slowing down, what on earth was I supposed to do?'

'I could sue your ass off is what I could do.' The cyclist stared angrily as he gingerly felt his neck and shoulder. 'I don' know that nothin' is broken here.'

'You've probably pulled a muscle,' said Michael, trying to be helpful.

'What are you, a doctor?' The reply was aggressive, the glare relentless.

It was a no-win situation. Time to get away from this crazy person and go back to the car, dry off the seats and head for home. Michael started to back away.

'I've offered you a lift, but if you're going to be -'

'Don' put yoursel' out. I live right over there.' The cyclist pointed across the block. 'Just give me your address. Write it down so I can contact you.'

Michael hesitated. He didn't like the idea of giving his address to a stranger. 'Why would you need to call me?' he asked.

'Jeesus, why do you think? It turns out I gotta dislocated shoulder or something, I gonna get a claim in on you, make you pay to get it fixed. You just better pray they don' fin' nothin' wrong with me, man.'

Reluctantly, Michael pulled a business card from his wallet and passed it across. Moments later he was heading back to the car and checking his watch. The whole business had lasted less than a couple of minutes. Behind the wheel once more, he watched the yellow slicker drift away into the rain mist and thought about the accident.

It was unusual for him to be placed in any kind of confrontational situation and not come out a winner. His likeability could defuse the most volatile of personalities. As he turned the key in the ignition, he wondered if there would be any repercussions. Suppose this chap had actually broken something and didn't know it yet? How did he stand, insurance-wise? He was thinking of himself, but hell, it had been the other party's fault. Michael was nice but no saint. His comfortable life made few allowances for upsets, and breaks in the smooth running of his routine irritated the hell out of him.

 

'Darling, you're all wet. What have you been doing?' Marla reached up and hugged him, her bed-warm breasts goose-pimpling against his damp jacket.

'There was a bit of an accident. I hit a cyclist. Had to get out of the car.' He gently disentangled himself and began removing his clothes.

She pulled the sheet around her. 'How awful. What happened?'

'He wasn't looking where he was going. I could have killed him. Luckily, he didn't seem hurt, but -'

The telephone rang. Marla shared his look of surprise. Their friends all knew that they had a seven-year-old son in the next room and never called the house late. Michael pulled the instrument toward him by the cord and raised the receiver. A wail of bizarre music squealed from the earpiece.

'Hello, who is this?'

'This the guy you hit tonight, brother.'

'How did you get my ho-' 

'My shoulder's dislocated. Bad news for you. Real bad karma.'

'The guy couldn't have seen a doctor already, even if he'd gone straight to casualty.

'Are you sure? I mean, how-'

'Sure I'm sure, you think you're dealing with a fockin' idiot? Patty, she says it's all bust up. Which means I can't work. An' you have to pay me compensation. S'gon be a lot of money, man.'

'Now wait a minute...' Maybe this was some kind of scam, a professional con trick.

Marla was tapping his arm, mouthing 'Who is it?'

He slipped his hand over the mouthpiece. 'The chap I hit tonight.'

'You still there? You gonna pay me to get fixed up or what?'

'Look, if you think you have a case for extracting money from me, I think you're wrong.' Michael's famous niceness was starting to slip. Who the hell did this guy think he was, finding his home phone number and calling so late at night? 'But if you really have damaged yourself, it's your own fault for riding without lights and not watching the traffic.'

'You don' know who you're dealing with,' came the reply. 'You just made the biggest mistake of your life.'

'Are you threatening me?'

'I'm just saying that people like you need to be taught a fockin' lesson, treating guys like me as if we don' exist.'

Michael stared at the receiver. This was bullshit. He was in the right, the other party was in the wrong. The law was on his side. And he cared, he had a social conscience. But the thought struck him, what if the accident had somehow been his fault after all?

'You still there? Tell me, Mr Townsend, what's your biggest fear? That your child get sick? That your wife get up and leave you?'

A chill prickled at Michael's neck. He didn't like this crazy man using his name, talking about his family. And how did he know he was even married? Was it that obvious, just by looking at the car?

'No, you scared o' something else even more, but you don't even know it. I see through people like you. Don't take much to break a man like you.' There was contempt in the voice, as if the caller was reading his mind.

'Now listen,' Michael snapped. 'you have no right to threaten me, not when you endangered my life as well as your own. I could get the police -'

The voice on the line cut in. 'When you come to find me - an' you will - it won' be with no damn police.'

Suddenly the line went dead. Michael shrugged and replaced the handset.

'Well, what did he say?'

'Oh, he was just - abusive,' he replied distractedly, watching the rain spangle over the street lights.

'Do you have his number?'

'Hmm?'

'His number, do you have it in case there's a problem?'

Michael realised that he didn't even know the name of the man he'd hit.

 

He rose early, leaving his wife curled beneath the duvet. Surprisingly, even little Sean had slept on in the adjoining bedroom. Michael showered and donned a shirt, grabbed a piece of toast and poured himself a glass of milk. Then he climbed the stairs and gently woke his wife.

And she slapped his face.

The glass broke. The milk splashed. He stepped back and cut his foot, but the pain had already given way to hurt. Puzzled, he ran his fingers across his reddening cheek.

'What the hell - what are you looking for?'

She was frantically searching beneath the mattress, then pulled up short in confusion.

'You - shouldn't creep up on me like that.' Marla slunk back beneath the covers, sleep-pressed hair folding over her eyes. She turned her back to him, embarrassed by the vivid dream that had leaked over into reality. Picking the glass from his foot, he watched a drop of crimson blood disperse in an alabaster puddle of milk like a spreading virus.

An Elastoplast took care of the wound. He rattled the glass fragments into a box which he sealed and placed in the pedal bin beneath the sink, then listened as his son thumped downstairs.

'Sean? You want Crunchy-Crunch?' He cocked his head. No answer. Odd. The boy could always be drawn by mention of his favourite breakfast cereal. 'Seanie?'

He looked around to find the boy glaring distrustfully at him through the bannisters. 'Sean, what's the matter? Come down and pour your milk on.'

The child shook his head slowly and solemnly, mumbling something to himself. He pulled his stripy sweatshirt over his chin and locked his arms around his knees. He stared through the bars, but he wouldn't descend any further.

'Come and have your breakfast, Sean. We can take some up to Mummy.' Another muffled reply.

Michael set the dustpan aside and took a step toward his son. 'I can't hear what you're saying.'

'You're not my daddy,' the boy screamed suddenly, scrambling back up the stairs to the safety of his bedroom.

 

Michael checked himself in the rear-view mirror. The same pleasant, confident face looked back, although the smile was a little less certain than usual. He drove through the avenue of sodden embankment trees heading into the city and wondered about the behaviour of his family. He didn't wonder for long; the three of them had managed to maintain a problem free existence until now, cushioned perhaps by Marla's inherited wealth and his own easy-going attitude. If they got under each other's feet in town there was always the cottage in Norfolk, a convenient ivy-covered bolt hole that provided healing seclusion. But the memory of the slap lingered as clearly as if the hand print had remained on his face.

Michael parked the car in the underground garage and took the lift to the seventh floor where he worked for Aberfitch McKiernny, a law firm dealing primarily with property disputes. The receptionist glanced up as he passed but failed to grant him her usual morning smile. The switchboard operators glared sullenly in his wake. Even the postboy seemed to be ignoring him. Why was everyone in such a bad mood today?

Michelle was already waiting by his door. She was the most efficient secretary he had ever employed. Power dressed in tight black raw cotton, her pale hair knotted carefully at her neck, she impatiently tapped a pair of IBM disks against the palm of her hand while she waited for him to remove his coat.

'You were supposed to take these home with you last night,' she explained, passing them over.

'I didn't get around to them. The Trowerbridge case took up all my time. I'll try to run them later this morning.'

She reached over and took the disks back. 'I don't think that will do any good. Your "opinion" was needed yesterday. No one will want it today.'

She stressed the words strangely, as if she no longer held much respect for him. Michael seated himself behind his desk and studied her. What was going on here? Michelle had always been his biggest fan, his greatest supporter. It was obvious to everyone that she was more than a little in love with him, and he played on the knowledge mercilessly. But today her tone had changed. There was a testiness in her voice, as if she had seen inside him and no longer desired what she saw.

'Michelle, are you okay?'

She folded her arms across her chest, pure frost. 'Fine. Why?'

'I don't know, you sound so - '

'You'd better get into Leo's office. He's been calling for you. He sounds pretty angry about something.'

Leo Tarrant, fifty-seven, the calm centre of the firm, was at peace because he was retiring in a year, and no longer let anything in the world worry him. But this morning he wasn't like that. His usually slick grey mane was ruffled about his head. His face was sclerotic and mottled with suppressed rage. He ripped back his chair and flicked rhythmically at the sides of a gold cigarette case, reminder of his past habit, now a talisman of his strengthened heart.

'You've let me down badly with this Trowerbridge business,' he admitted. 'I thought I'd get an early result by placing it in your hands. Instead it now looks as if they'll have to go to court after all.'

Michael shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He simply couldn't comprehend Leo's attitude. Trowerbridge Developments had been sued by one of its tenants for failing to maintain a property. The company, aware that it had little chance of winning the case, had requested the negotiation of an out of court settlement by its longstanding legal representatives. Michael had done everything within his power to ensure that this would happen. After all, the clients were friends of his. They saw each other socially. Their kids even played together.

'I don't know what you're talking about, Leo,' Michael confessed. 'I completed my end of the deal in plenty of time to prevent the planned court action from going ahead.'

'That's exactly the opposite of what I've heard,' said his boss, clicking away at the clasp of the cigarette box. 'According to the client's own progress report you've been holding back the negotiations and leaning so far in favour of the tenants that there's precious little time left for Trowerbridge to cut himself a deal. Neither he nor his son can see any way of making a satisfactory settlement. And there's something else.'

Michael was dumbfounded. He couldn't have worked any harder for these people. If this was their way of showing gratitude...

'Have you ever received any financial inducements from the Trowerbridge family? Negative-equity absorbers, anything like that?'

The old man was accusing him of taking a bribe? He could scarcely believe his ears.

'No, of course not,' he spluttered furiously. 'I'm amazed that you could even consider - '

'Calm down, I'm not saying you did. It's something that the corporation suggested I look into. Think back over your relationship with Trowerbridge over the last few months, would you? You'd better make damned sure that there's nothing in your recent dealings with them that could damage your standing with this firm. Now let's go over these complaints in detail.' He produced a slim red file and carefully unfolded it.

For the next hour and a half Michael was interrogated about his handling of the impending lawsuit. Although he left Leo's office more or less vindicated, he knew from the look on the old man's face that something irretrievable had been lost; a level of trust had been removed. The layer of good faith that had always existed between himself and his superiors had been torn away like the stripes from a dishonoured soldier's tunic. It wasn't just a matter of rebuilding Leo's confidence in him. He wanted to know why his abilities had been so quickly doubted. Clearly the Trowerbridge family, father and son, had lied, and Leo had believed them. But why should they do that? What had they to gain beyond an undesired delay to the lawsuit? It made no sense.

He considered the problem for the rest of the morning, during which time his secretary proved barely capable of common civility. She appeared briefly throughout the day to dump dockets on his desk, and at one point when he glanced up at her looked as if she was about to file a harassment suit against him. Michael felt the ground shifting fast beneath him. As he was leaving the building that evening, the doorman grumpily revealed that his parking space had been switched to a smaller, more awkward stall further away from the main doors.

 

Marla already sounded bored with the topic of conversation. They had washed up the dinner things together. Now she had turned back to the sink and was wiping down surfaces unnecessarily; the cleaning lady was due first thing tomorrow. Eventually aware that he had asked her a question, she sighed and faced him. 'I just don't know, Michael. These things happen. There's no point in getting paranoid. Nobody's out to get you.'

'Well, it certainly feels like they are.' He complained, digging a bottle of Scotch from the cupboard and pouring himself a generous measure.

His wife made a face; disbelief, dissatisfaction, he couldn't read which. 'You know,' she said slowly, 'maybe you're just experiencing the real world for a change.'

'What the hell is that supposed to mean?'

She gestured vaguely about her. 'You know what you're like. You've always had this kind of aura of perfection surrounding you. People go out of their way to make things easy for you. Perhaps they're not doing it this once, and you've simply noticed for the first time.'

He drained the glass and set it down on the kitchen table. 'Marla, that's ridiculous and you know it.'

'Is it? You glide through life in a golden haze expecting people to move out of your way just because you're you.' She fell silent for a moment, then turned back to the sink. 'It was something I noticed about you the day we met. A quality very few men ever possess. It's something you normally only find in very pretty girls, and then just for a couple of years. Doors automatically open. No one has ever found me special like that, only you. The rest of us trail in your wake. Well, maybe it's our turn in the sun for a while.'

It seemed to Michael that he was being presented with a day of revelations, that he was somehow seeing himself clearly for the first time, from above, perhaps, or from a distance.

He rose and moved to his wife's side, gently placing his hands upon her hips. 'I can't understand why you've never talked to me about this before,' he said softly, 'why you couldn't have been more honest with me.'

'What's the point when you're not prepared to be honest about yourself?' she asked, coolly removing his hands. 'If you want complete candour, then I'll tell you. I really don't think I can bear you touching me any more.'

The room fell silent and remained so. Sean would not come down to kiss him goodnight and hid behind his mother's skirt until she took him up to bed.

 

He didn't think the situation could get any worse, but it did.

Marla would not talk about her refusal to allow his touch. At night she kept to the far side of the bed and took to sleeping in a T-shirt and pants. In the mornings she was up and dressed before him. She had usually washed and fed her son by the time he arose, so that the pair of them presented his sleepy form with a smart united front. Although she refused to be drawn on the subject of their halted sex life, she conceded that no one else was stealing her affection from him. It was simply something that had finally, and perhaps inevitably, occurred. Frozen out of his own home, he increased his hours in the office.

But there the situation was just as bad. The Trowerbridge case had been lost and now everyone regarded him with suspicion, as if he'd been caught stealing office supplies and let off with a warning. Sometimes members of staff insulted him just out of earshot. At the very least, they ignored him. Michael became aware that parties and dinners were being arranged behind his back and that he had become the butt of cheap, stupid jokes. Much of the time no one seemed to notice him at all. If he joined a group at the coffee machine and struck up a conversation, they would glance over his shoulder, noting something or someone that interested them more. If he tried to make a social arrangement they cried off with transparently feeble excuses, not even bothering to convince him of their unavailability.

Petty grievances, of a kind that had never occurred before, began to accumulate. He was given the dullest briefs to work on. Someone left a bottle of Listerine on his desk in response to an office perception that he suffered from halitosis. Even the parking attendant had the temerity to suggest that he attend more carefully to his personal hygiene.

At last, at the end of his tether, he asked his secretary to enter his office and to close the door behind her.

'I want you to be honest with me, Michelle,' he said carefully, seating himself and bidding her do the same. 'I find everyone's attitude towards me has changed drastically in the last two weeks, and I'm at a loss to understand why.'

'You want the honest truth?' asked Michelle, pointedly examining her cuticles.

'Please,' pleaded Michael, ready to absorb her reply and analyse it at length.

'Well, it's the way you treat people, like they're satellites around your planet. I used to find it exciting, very masculine. I rather fancied you, all that rugged decisiveness. Others did too. Now I wonder how I could have been so blind.' She shifted uncomfortably. 'Can I go now?'

'Certainly not!' he snorted, wondered, shook his head in bewilderment. 'Explain what you mean. What do the others say about me?'

Michelle stared up at the ceiling and blew the air from her cheeks. 'Oh, you know, the usual...that you're self-centred, boring, pushy, less clever than you think you are. You're just not a very likeable man any more.'

'And you can sit there and say this to my face?' he asked.

'I've already applied for a transfer,' she answered, rising.

Michael realised then that if he went out and bought a dog it would probably run off, just to be away from him. Seated on a wet bench in the bedraggled little park beneath the office, watching as the pigeons strutted toward his shoes and then veered away, he became seized with the idea that someone had placed a curse on him. Not your usual get-boils-and-die curse, but something subtler. There was only one wild card to consider, one suspect, and that was Mr Whatever-his-name-was on the bike, the Latin chap he'd knocked over. The more Michael considered it, the clearer it became that his troubles had truly begun after that angry night-time phone call. He remembered the voice on the line: 'What's your biggest fear? ...Don't take much to break a man like you ... When you come to find me - an' you will...' It all began to make sense. Could there be a rational explanation for what was happening to him? Was the guy some kind of shaman in touch with the supernatural, a malevolent hypnotist, or just someone with the power of suggestion? Wasn't that how voodoo worked? He was determined to take positive action

It was dark by the time he finally got out of the office. Nosing the car back toward the intersection where the accident had occurred, he remembered the cyclist's response to his offer of a lift. 'I just live over there.'

'Over there' proved to be a prefabricated two-storey block of council flats. With no other way of locating his tormentor, he began ringing doorbells and facing irate residents, most of whom were in the middle of eating dinner. One of them even swore and spat at him, but by now he was used to that kind of behaviour. Trudging along the cracked, flooded balconies like a demented rent collector, he suddenly recalled a name mentioned in the phone call - Patty. Hadn't she checked out the cyclist's damaged shoulder? At least it was something specific, a person he could ask to see.

After being abused in four more doorways, he was nearing the end of the first floor with only a few apartments remaining when a young Asian man with dragons tattooed on his arms pointed to the flat at the end of the corridor.

'She's married to a Mexican guy who plays weird music all night,' he complained.

Leaning against the garbage chute was the bicycle that he had hit, now repaired.

'That's the one,' said Michael, thanking him and setting off. He stood before the door and read the printed card wedged next to the broken bell.

'You're back sooner than I expected,' said Ramon del Tierro, faith healer, opening the door at his knock and ushering him in. 'I didn't think you'd come to me for at least another week.'

The hallway was in darkness. Mariachi music was playing in one of the bedrooms. The flat was slightly perfumed, as though someone had been burning incense earlier. Ramon was slighter and smaller than he remembered, pallid and unhealthy looking. His left eye was milky, blinded. He led the way to a small, smartly decorated lounge and waved him to a seat. Michael didn't want to sit. He no longer considered the situation absurd. He just wanted an answer, and an end to the hatred.

'You did this to me, didn't you?' The tightness in his voice made him realise how much anger he was holding back.

'Did what? Tell me what I did.' Ramon shrugged, faking puzzlement.

'You made me - made everyone detest me.'

'Hey, how could I do that? You soun' like a crazy man. You want to know how my shoulder is? Thank you for askin, it's gonna be okay.' He turned away. 'I'm gonna make some coffee. You wan' some?'

'I want you to tell me what you did, damn it!' Michael shouted, grabbing a scrawny arm.

Ramon glared fiercely and remained silent until he released his grip. Then he softly spoke.

'I have a gift, Mr Townsend. A crazy, pointless gift. If it had been second sight or somethin' I might have made some money from it, but no. When I come into contact with strangers I can see what makes them happy or sad. Sometimes I can sense what they fear or who they love. It depends on who I touch. Sometimes I don't feel nothin' at all. But I felt it with you. An' I made you see how life can be when you don't have the one thing you value most. In your case, it's your popularity. I took away your charm. You're no longer a likeable guy. I just didn't think it would screw you up as bad as this. I guess you must love yourself a whole lot more than you love anyone else.'

Michael ran a hand across his face, suddenly tired. 'Why did you pick on me for this particular - experiment?'

'Because I can, and because you deserved it. Now, what you gonna do about that? Go cryin' to the police, tell them nobody likes you?'

Fury was rising within Michael, bubbling to the surface in a malignant mist. 'What - do you want - from me?'

'I don' want nothing from you, Mr Townsend. You got nothin' I want.'

'You sabotaged my job.'

Ramon shook his head. 'No sir, I did not. Anythin' that's happening to you is happening 'cause people just don't like you no more.'

'Then you can make it end.'

The healer considered this for a moment, scratching at his chin with a thumbnail. 'I guess I could, but I don't want to. See, it's better for you to relearn yourself from scratch. Won't be easy the way you are now, but just makin' the effort would turn you into a better person.'

Michael knew that if he moved to close he would lash out at Ramon. His temper was slow to rise but formidable to witness. Now he clenched his fists and advanced on the little Mexican. 'You get this fucking thing off me straight away, you filthy little spic, or I will beat you unconscious and burn this shit hole down with you in it, do you understand?'

'Now you're showing your true colours, Mr Townsend.' Ramon took a step back, wary but not nervous. 'A soul like yours takes an awful lot of fixin'. Tell me what it is you want.'

'I want you to make everyone love me again,' he said, suddenly embarrassed by the realisation of his needs.

'That I can do.'

'How soon?'

'In a few seconds, with just a touch. But you won't like it. Consider the other way, I beg you. Relearn. Begin again with the personality you have now. It will be more difficult, but the rewards will be much greater.'

'I can't do that. I need this to happen tonight.'

'Then it will have to be the hard way. Come closer to me.'

Michael walked into Ramon's outstretched arms. Before he had time to realise what was happening, he felt the thin-bladed knife that Ramon had pulled from his pocket bite between the ribs traversing his heart. The fiery razor edge sliced through the beating muscle, piercing a ventricle and ending his life in a single crimson moment.

 

So many people turned up at St Peter's Church that they ran out of parking spaces and had to leave their cars on the grass verges lining the road. The funeral service boasted eulogies from the senior partners of Aberfitch McKiernny, from friends and relatives, from his colleagues and from his adoring wife. Everyone who went to the burial of Michael Everett Townsend volubly agreed; the man being laid to rest here was truly loved by everyone.

 

 

(C) Christopher Fowler 2005

 

 

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